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Practical advice for taming those rampaging elephants in the room

Updated: Dec 4, 2019

This is a favourite subject for us in our leadership and communications workshops. So, it’s good to come across some useful additions to our elephant-taming toolbox. Sometimes people want a script for every possible eventuality. That’s just not feasible. These sorts of conversations are generative; you’re never quite sure where the other person’s coming from or where the conversation will go. You don’t live in their head and they don’t live in yours. So, these techniques aren’t a step-by-step blueprint, but they’re useful steps and phrases.

So, what are your elephants?

It helps to sit back and articulate what they are and why you haven’t talked about them. There’s a fighting chance you don’t feel psychologically safe. So, here’s some practical advice to take action.

1. Get out of your head and allow the other person into the conversation

Chances are you’ll ruminate and actually have the conversation in your head. Step one is to get it out of your head and translated into real dialogue.

Make an appointment: set a time to meet with the other person. How about: “Chris, I’d like to schedule a 15 minute private appointment with you on Thursday at 2pm.” Now you’ve made the commitment, you’re…well, committed.

2. Challenge your story

When you ruminate, you’ll likely allow your stories to fill in any gaps and become more extreme. You’ll paint the other person as the devil, when maybe they’re just wired a little differently to you. You need to challenge your story against other possible realities.

Be curious (one of our favourite words) to uncover others’ stories. “Chris, I noticed you rolled your eyes when I brought up the new system. Walk me through what’s going on for you…” Then, breathe and allow Chris to deny, debate, or defend.

You’ve now started elephant taming. Instead of making up your own story about Chris’s eye rolling, you just made the undiscussable discussable.

3. Own your stuff

Here’s where you get the chance to explain your story. You expose the other person to your feelings and perceptions to promote better understanding. Own your part in the situation and give a little grace to the other person. Try to see them more as a partner than an adversary.

How about: “Chris, when you roll your eyes, I feel disrespected. And by the way, I’m sorry I haven’t said something sooner, because that’s not fair to you. I don’t want to call this out in a meeting in front of everyone else. When you disagree, I’d prefer to hear your point of view rather than have to guess at what you feel.”

Who knows how Chris will respond, but by now the elephant’s just standing there calmly swinging its trunk. It’s out in the open and exposed.

4. Talk outcomes

Move away from a game of tennis and instead glide together in sync across the dance floor. How? Talk best possible outcomes and the end game you both want.

How about: “Chris, we both have lot to offer. I want to make sure we both succeed in this project and leverage our strengths. What do you see as the best outcome for us working together?”

Happy elephant taming!


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